PANTHERS RE-LOADED FOR NFL HUNTING SEASON

Firepower. Mark it down. The Carolina Panthers are re-loaded and going for big game. And they've got the firepower to bring down even the biggest. Forget last season. That's now in the old news section under the title Steve Smith Interrupted. You can't defend your Conference Championship from the trainer's table, nor repeat a Super Bowl run in street clothes.

No, success begins with ratty fatigues and grease paint all over your face and some mighty nasty firepower at your disposal.

Head Coach John Fox heads into the 2005-2006 hunting season with more arrows in his quiver than he's ever had in Carolina. More weapons even than the magical 2003-2004 season where the Panthers came that close to taking the New England Patriots from dynasty to devastation.

That 2003 campaign combined relatively good overall health with the delightful intensity of enigmatic quarterback Jake Delhomme, the speed and strength of mighty mite Steve Smith, the unmovable force of defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and a rejected Redskin who rushed for more yards from scrimmage than any running back in Carolina Panthers history.

After getting whacked in the shins by the Tonya Harding of injury bugs in 04-05, the Panthers are back…

And more potent than ever.

READY

I think it's pointless to comment on the preseason. There are too many players playing who won't make the open night roster. It's fun in a fantasy league sort of way, but meaningless once the regular season starts.

But I think it's worth putting down a few observations from preseason that might have a bearing on how the regular season goes down.

AIM

* I think Dan Morgan looks comfortable in his own skin…for the first time since he came to Charlotte.

* I like Thomas Davis at strong safety. Carolina has always needed a punisher back there – someone to really strike fear in wide receivers' hearts and give tight ends pause. I think Davis is the punisher at safety the defense needs. Mike Minter, bless him, tries hard, but he bounces off bigger players too easily.

* I think Muhsin Muhammad will make a great tight end in Chicago.

* John Fox won't get a single snapshot on Sportscenter until the playoffs, when Fox's game-long assault on a pack of Juicy Fruit will be all over the TV screen. Fox doesn't brood as well as Jon Gruden nor scowl as telegenetically as Bill Cowher, but he has the look of a man who's ready for greatness – one deflecting sound bite at a time.

* Attiyah Ellison really blew it, didn't he? Read the Observer interview with TA McClendon and you'll understand why Ellison was cut.

* I think Michael Gaines will make a wonderful offensive tackle some day.

* The return of Stephen Davis has been overblown. The addition of Mike Wahl hasn't.

* I like the way new corner Ken Lucas hits. But I'll wait to pass judgment on his cover skills until he locks horns with Joe Horn. Then we'll know.

* Jake Delhomme is still throwing high to receivers – and rarely in stride. He's going to get someone killed doing that. He'll win because that's what he does, but someone will die.

* I think Jordan Gross will have better luck against Charles Grant than Matt Willig.

* I think Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver of all time.

* Say, Mike Trgovac has sorta grown up, hasn't he?

* I won't miss Todd Sauerbrun. I thought he was overrated and his punts too shallow. Baker was a surprise choice over Rouen to some but not those who saw him punt in preseason. No, Carolina's emphasis on field position won't suffer with Tantrum Todd in Denver.

* Wasn't Javon Haye selected in the sixth round? The same young man who outplayed Ellison and made it past the final cut? Didn't Carolina get a sixth rounder from the Broncos for Sauerbrun? Just asking. Marty Hurney should get a medal.

* Eric Shelton was placed on the IR because he couldn't learn to block, not because he couldn't run.

* Darin Gantt remains the best beat writer covering the Panthers. He writes when he reports without trying to be cute or clever. He has an insight his contemporaries lack.

* Keeping Jamal Roberston was a good move. Not cutting Rod Smart was a good move, too.

This defense will miss Mark Fields. Terribly.

FIRE

Who cares about Tonya Harding anyway? Let's pull the trigger and play some football.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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